Obama: There's a misperception that government workers don't work hard

Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesU.S. President Barack Obama arrives on November 16, 2016 in Berlin, Germany
  • In America, the term “government worker” has become synonymous with the idea of an unambitious person who works scant few hours for the pay.
  • But it’s a myth that government workers don’t work hard, former President Barack Obama said on Wednesday speaking at a tech conference in Las Vegas.
  • And he joked, the myth probably comes from dealing with the DMV.
  • But there was a subtle seriousness to his statement: citizens would value government more if they respected the hard work and dedication of the people employed by the government.

We all know the cliche of the lazy government worker. It goes like this: with no quarterly profits to protect, a stable 9-to-5 workday (plus lunch) and a constant string of federal holidays, government employees are people with no ambition and no reason to push hard.

But President Barack Obama says that this is nothing but a myth.

“People in my White House had to work at a much harder level of sustained effort than anyone in the private sector had to work,” Obama said to a crowd of 4,000 IT professionals on Wednesday, speaking on stage with Okta CEO Todd McKinnon at at Okta’s annual conference in Las Vegas.

“I think there’s a misperception that government doesn’t work and people don’t work hard,” he said and then he joked, “I think people’s image of government is based on going to get their driver’s licence renewed.”

When the crowd laughed, Obama quipped that dealing with the DMV, “is truly annoying.”

That said, Departments of Motor Vehicles are run by state governments, not the federal government. He said he once joked to a friend a few years ago, “If I could nationalize DMVs around the country, it would be transformative, because people’s ideas of government would drastically improve.”

More seriously, he said that “the truth is the public sector does really hard things really well that the private sector can’t or won’t do.” This includes everything from national security to scientific research.

He also suggested that people’s frustrations – and misconceptions – come from government’s poor use of technology. Government is far when it comes to using tech, he said. It’s not just the DMV, at the federal level, he offered the IRS as a big example.

“The fact is, we under-invest in the IRS” in part because “nobody likes the IRS,” he said. “As a consequence, we discovered basic IT systems in place [at the IRS] are held together by string and bubble gum.”

While some might argue that it’s the convoluted tax code that makes the IRS so miserable to work with, Obama dismissed that. Even if the tax code is never simplified, by upgrading the IRS’s technology, “you could make interacting with IRS – I won’t say pleasurable – but more efficient, more user friendly. But that requires investment that often times we don’t like to do.”

Lack of investment in tech increases the frustrations people experience when working with a government agency. And that contributes to their perception of the a bureaucratic or lazy government worker, he said.

For the record, Americans across all job titles work on average just over 34 hours a week, according to US Department of Labour. That’s a little less than federal employees, who are expected to work 40 hours a week, typically 8:30 to 5:00, Monday through Friday.

More from President Obama’s talk on Wednesday.

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